The Christian Bible Reference Site

Should the Bible Be Interpreted Literally?

Frequently Asked Questions

Summary

Bible interpretation is one of the issues that divides Christians.

Throughout most of the Christian era, Bible reading and Bible interpretation were confined to religious professionals. Until the sixteenth century the Bible was interpreted according to church beliefs and traditions. There was little or no attempt made to determine the original meanings of the Scripture.

Scientific discoveries beginning in the sixteenth century seemed to contradict some of the Bible stories, particularly the ancient view of the cosmos and the creation story in the book of Genesis. Thus, questions about Bible interpretation arose that had never been considered before. That prompted a renewed study of the origins and history of the Bible as well as its literary forms, and it led to a modern method of Bible interpretation known as hermeneutics.  Hermeneutics attempts to determine the lessons taught by the Bible in its original historic setting and then apply those lessons to life in the present era. The Bible came to be viewed as a divinely inspired book of spiritual and ethical guidance, but not intended as authoritative on matters of history and science.

The fundamentalist movement began around 1900 in reaction to the newer understanding of the Bible.  Fundamentalist Christians believe in "inerrancy" of the Bible. That is often understood as implying that the Bible, in its entirety, is the literal word of God. As such, it must be interpreted as literal truth in all its details. Thus, any apparent conflicts between Bible stories and science or history must be resolved in favor of the Bible because of its divine origins.

A more mainstream belief, however, is that God inspired the Bible's human authors to deliver His message to the world and ensured that they delivered it faithfully. But God left it up to them to express that message in their own words and in literary styles current at the time. He did not give the Bible's authors any supernatural knowledge of future scientific discoveries. There is no conflict between the Bible and science because the Bible is a book of spiritual and moral guidance; it was never intended to be a textbook of science or history.

Historical Background

The Middle Ages and Earlier

Throughout most of the Christian era, Bible reading and Bible interpretation were confined to religious professionals. Until the fifteenth century, the Bible was available only in Latin. Even when the Bible was translated into other languages, the scarcity and high cost of Bibles kept them out of the hands of ordinary people. Availability of Bibles was also restricted by church officials1.

During this era, the Bible was interpreted according to church beliefs and traditions. There was little or no attempt made to determine the original meanings of the Scripture. Difficult passages "were interpreted as having a figurative meaning, so that they convey, through a kind of code, deeper truths about God, the spiritual life, or the church2."

Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries

Christians have always believed the Bible is inspired by God and is authoritative on spiritual, moral and ethical matters. It wasn't until science began to develop in the 16th century that questions and arguments arose about whether the Bible is also authoritative on scientific and historical matters.

The Copernican theory

The first major conflict was between the Ancient View of the Earth, as reflected in the Bible, and the Copernican theory, which held that the earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. The astronomer Galileo, using his telescope, found evidence to support the Copernican theory and began publishing his results in 1611. Church officials were alarmed because the Copernican theory seemed to contradict the Bible, and in 1616 Pope Paul V ordered Galileo to abandon the Copernican theory3.

Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Darwin's Theory of Evolution

By the nineteenth century, most Christians had come to accept the Copernican theory of the universe because of overwhelming scientific evidence. But a new crisis arose with the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin proposed that species of plants and animals evolved through a process of natural selection. Darwin observed that there were variations among individual plants and animals. He proposed that, in the struggle to survive, the better adapted individuals would be more likely to survive and reproduce their characteristics in succeeding generations. Thus, over many generations, species would change by a process of evolution. Further, the process was said to work automatically, seemingly leaving little room for Divine guidance or design.

Darwin's theory was seen by some Christians as a direct attack on the story of creation in the Bible book of Genesis (Genesis 1:1-31). It also spawned a number of atheistic movements both within the natural sciences and the social sciences that saw the universe as created and ruled simply by the impersonal forces of nature. "Darwinism" became associated with atheism in the minds of many Christians, and rejection of all of Darwin's theories became almost a creed for some Christians.

Higher Criticism

In the late eighteenth century, scholars began studying the Bible as literature rather than as divine revelation. New techniques of literary analysis, archaeology and linguistics were used to study the Bible. Some in this "Higher Criticism" movement asserted that the Bible stories were little more than mythology, and by the end of the nineteenth century these ideas had become quite popular4.

Fundamentalism

In 1910, in reaction to Higher Criticism and Darwinism, a group of Presbyterian theologians proposed five essential beliefs of Christianity: 1) the inerrancy of Scripture, 2) the virgin birth of Christ, 3) Christ's atonement for our sins on the cross, 4) His bodily resurrection, 5) the objective reality of His miracles. These became known as The Fundamentals. They were widely distributed and formed the basis of the Fundamentalist movement within Christianity5.

Many fundamentalists believed the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible to its human authors word-for-word. They reasoned that "inerrancy of Scripture" meant that everything in the Bible must be absolutely, literally, scientifically and historically true. Anything less would be unworthy of God. According to this view, the Bible, in all its detail, is inerrant on matters of history and science, as well as doctrine. Any apparent conflict between the Bible and another source (science, history, etc.) should be resolved in favor of the Bible because of its Divine origin. Several verses (e.g., 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21) are cited in favor of literal interpretation.

However, a number of facts do not support the belief that the entire Bible is the literal word of God:

Modern Era - Beliefs and Issues

Inspiration

Most Christians continue to believe the Bible is inspired by God, but the mainstream view of "inspiration" is now along these lines:

God inspired the Bible's human authors to deliver His message to the world and ensured that they delivered it faithfully. But God left it up to them to express that message in their own words and in literary styles current at the time. He did not give the Bible's authors any supernatural knowledge of future scientific discoveries. There is no conflict between the Bible and science because the Bible is a book of spiritual and moral guidance; it was never intended to be a book of science or history.

Further, most Christians accept scientific and scholarly study of the Bible as legitimate. Christianity is a religion built on truth (John 8:32, Romans 1:18, James 1:17-18) and whatever we can learn about the Bible adds to our ability to understand the truth of the Bible as it was originally intended. Forcing the Bible into a narrow ideological view, such as strict literal interpretation or agreement with some system of doctrine or theology, makes it impossible to fully understand God's revelation through the Bible.

In the majority view, many of the Bible's stories are historically accurate and should be interpreted literally. But some spiritual truths are revealed through the common literary mechanisms of allegory, parable, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and irony that were never intended to be taken literally. Such mechanisms serve to "paint a mental picture" of ideas not easily expressed in words. The Bible reveals timeless spiritual truths about God, love, salvation, faith, morals and ethics that transcend the realms of science and history. We can appreciate the beauty of a sunrise whether or not the sun literally "rises" above the earth. In the same way, we can understand and appreciate the lessons of the Bible whether or not all its stories are true in a literal sense.

Theistic Evolution

As with the Copernican Theory in times past, most Christians now accept the essence of Darwin's theory of evolution because of strong scientific evidence that organisms evolve to adapt to environmental conditions through a process of natural selection. A belief in theistic evolution accepts the reality of Biological evolution but asserts that God initiated and/or directs that process. Essentially it is a belief that biological evolution is a "tool" that God has used to develop life.

Creationism and Intelligent Design

Creationism

In its broadest sense, Creationism refers to a belief that the universe and all within it was divinely created. The fundamentalist position that God created everything in six days exactly as told in the book of Genesis is at one end of this spectrum of beliefs. At the other end is a generalized belief that the universe and life were somehow created by divine intervention. Probably most Christians and many scientists do believe that God is ultimately responsible for creation.

Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design is essentially Creationism using different terminology. It asserts that life as we know it would not have been possible except that some intelligent cause created the universe, in all its minute details, in such a way that life could develop as it did. Proponents of Intelligent Design have portrayed it as a valid scientific explanation of the universe and of life on earth. The original motivation may have been to circumvent a court decision, based on separation of church and state, that creationism (aka creation science) could not be taught as science in public school classes.6

But Intelligent Design is really in the realm of philosophy rather than science because it is based on reasoning rather than empirical evidence. A quick comparison of the scientific method with the pseudoscience of Intelligent Design shows that it is not a "science" in the way the term is ordinarily understood:

  Scientific Method Intelligent Design Method
Step 1. Assemble all known data from observations and experiments Start with the hypothesis that an "intelligent cause" created the universe in such a way that life as we know it would not otherwise be possible.
Step 2. Develop a hypothesis that agrees with and can predict all known results Assemble known data that seems to support the hypothesis. Do not include any contrary data or considerations.
Step 3. Peer review. Inform other experts of the hypothesis. Solicit criticism and suggestions. Return to step 2 if flaws are found. No peer review.
Step 4. Perform experiments to test the hypothesis and obtain additional relevant data. Return to step 2 to incorporate any new data. Process is finished. Do not try to test or refine the hypothesis.

Age of the Universe

There is overwhelming evidence from the fields of astronomy, physics, biology and archaeology that the universe is more than 10 billion years old, and life on earth began as much as 3.5 billion years ago. Most Christians of the present time accept the scientific evidence as valid.

But those figures seem to contradict a literal reading of the creation story in Genesis. In response, some attempts have been made to calculate the date of creation based on the Bible alone. The Bible does not place any dates on the events it narrates, so the calculations have typically been based on counting the generations listed in the various genealogies in the Bible. Typical calculations conclude that creation occurred around 4000 B.C.

Critics of those calculations point out that the genealogies may list only significant persons and are sometimes contradictory. Many Bible experts say the genealogies were never intended to be a complete record of human history. The real purpose was to help the Israelites trace their ancestry to their patriarchs and other important people such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and King David.7

Hermeneutics

The modern understanding of the Bible came about partly as a result of discoveries in the fields of astronomy, geology and biology, but also as a result of developments in hermeneutics, the science and art of Bible interpretation, which can be summed up as follows:

These four key words - observation, interpretation, evaluation, and application - are the heart of all approaches to finding out what the Bible means. They provide the structure of what questions you ask of the text, and when.

Interpreting the Bible correctly is a two-step process. We must first discover what the passage meant in its original time, place, culture and language. Then we must discover its message for us in today's culture. Observation and interpretation apply to the first step; evaluation and application apply to the second.8

Many Christians believe the stories in Genesis Chapters 1-11 serve primarily to establish the spiritual foundation of all that follows. The stories of Creation, the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel reveal the essential nature of God, His power and glory, and His relation to us.

Using the techniques of hermeneutics, the Genesis account of creation (Genesis 1:1-31, 2:1-3) might be analyzed as follows:

Related articles: How to Study the Bible, Summary and History of the Bible, Creation

1 Herbert Lockyer, Sr., ed., Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986, pp. 166-176.
2 James L. Mays, ed., Harper's Bible Commentary, Harper, 1988, pp. 8-9.
3 Encyclopedia Americana, Americana Corporation, 1971, vol. 12, pp. 240-244
4 Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Ballantine, 2000, pp. 95, 140.
5 ibid., p. 171.
6 US Supreme Court, Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987
7 Martin A. Shields, “Genealogy,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
8 Lockyer, pp.160-166